Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Thinking in Nonlinear Terms

I don't know about you, but I don't read books backwards. I also don't write them backwards, or out of any sort of order. I write from Page One all the way to The Last Page, and that's that. I usually edit as I go. When I read, it's still from Page One all the way to The Last Page (imagine that). Sometimes, if I like a book enough, I'll finish it and go back to re-read specific scenes that seemed especially poignant to me. Sometimes I'll underline them and make notes in the margins.

The past few days I've been reading a book that has a linear plotline, but it's told in such a way that I see the story outside of itself, in a nonlinear way. I have to admit this fascinates me to no end. I don't even know if I can do it justice in any sort of description, or if I'd ever be able to pull off something like that. Still, I think it's fun to explore. Some things I've noticed are:

Plot Doesn't Matter So Much
I've noticed that the stories I fall in love with the most always exist outside of plot. Plot matters - in linear terms, at least. When you start to think about story outside of linear existence, things become clearer. For instance, in the novel I'm reading, the plot is so ridiculously simple that all I can say about it is that someone dies and people think about it (and a lot of other things). It's so unlike the novels you see being published by the thousands these days (including my own stuff!) that it's like a breath of fresh air. As it did in college, it's opening my eyes just a bit wider as to what storytelling really is, what it can be, and what I can do to improve my own storytelling skills.

The Storytelling is the Story
I tend to think about my novel, Monarch, in a sort of cycle that goes somewhat like this: This story is so commercial. It's about a spy. Whoopdedoo. It's nothing special. Typical thriller. But. Wait. No, it's different. I'm telling this story in a different way than you see most spy thrillers told. It's sitting on the edge of something else. It's unique. It's worth reading because the way I tell the three interweaving stories is part of the actual story. As crazy as that sounds.

I don't know if that makes any sense, but what I'm trying to get at is that form can be as much a story as plot, character, and all those other elements. It can be its own story, and that's so exciting to me that I almost salivate in anticipation just thinking about writing or reading anything with that application. I barely brush on it in Monarch, but it's there.

The Language Loses You
I'll admit that the book I'm reading now scares me. A lot. I'll get lost sometimes. Confused. What is this author doing? The fact that I keep reading and can't stop turning the pages says something. The way words string together, the images playing in my head, I could care less where the heck the story is going, what's happening, who the characters are. I'm lost in the words, and I love it. For awhile, when I finish a book like this, I feel kind of cheated in straight linear fiction, which is almost like wading in a shallow pool rather than the deepest part of the ocean. It's where my love of fiction truly took form when I was studying in college. That ocean. That place where words are words are words, and like a stripped bone, they gleam bright under the sun and make you squirm. They make you grow.

I've rambled on long enough. I think one of the points I'm getting at here is to not necessarily write or read in nonlinear terms, but think in nonlinear terms. When that happens, you start to step outside of a box you probably didn't even realize surrounded you. I'll be talking more about this book and telling you the title and author in one of the Literary Lab's first podcasts. So keep an eye out!

What about you? Do you try to think of storytelling outside the box? Does this scare you? Fascinate you? Does anything I've said make sense at all?


  1. This got my engineer side all buzzing. I received my MS in Controls & Dynamics (robotics) and applied various algorithms to a spinning pendulum to control angle... the nonlinear algorithms got you to desired result faster, but sometimes, things went way crazy and bad shit happened (without rhyme or reason... unpredictable). Linear always worked, but sometimes took awhile.

    Enough geeking out on my part, but the entire time I was reading your post, I was reminded of my spinning pendulum.

  2. Bane: That's really interesting! I do know for certain that writing like I've described here is not for beginners, or even more seasoned authors. You certainly have to know what you're doing and have enough confidence that it will work out (and have enough courage to step away if it's not going to work out).

  3. Alice Munro, who I really admire, says in the introduction to one of her collections that she doesn't read in a linear way. She picks up a book and start reading it at a random point. Then, later when she picked it up again, she started reading at another random point. She does this, jumping around, until, eventually, the entire story forms on its own in her head. When I read that, it freed me as a reader and as a writer. I like the idea that books don't force you to follow the rules, even for the reader. A lot of books that deal with memory--reliable or not--show me how far from linear a story can be. That's exciting!

  4. Davin: See, that fascinates me! I think that is so amazing. I'll often pick up books that I've read and just start reading in the middle. I have such a goldfish brain that I've often forgotten the story anyway. Usually what I remember are the nonlinear things that stuck with me because of how they were told.

  5. I absolutely agree that structure and storyline go together. They are dependent on each other. If you tell the same story with two different structures, you'll be forced to introduce different scenes, different details, different character actions that translates to a different story. I've experience that firsthand many times. I try to step out of the linear box by viewing the world as a whole, so that I feel like I see more things that are happening and can choose from more options when I'm deciding what to actually write about.

  6. Davin: Thinking like this opens up SO many doors for me. It takes that whole "There are only 7 plots available" and throws it out the door. Yes, there may be only 7 plots, but there are infinite ways to tell them, and how you tell them is what creates a story outside of plot. I like to think of the stories we tell as existing beyond the "plot plane" and floating just above it or below it or through it get the idea. :)

  7. I write forward, but sometimes I revise backward. I usually have an idea of where a story is going, and I outline roughly before a first draft. Things always change, though, once I'm deep in the story.

    When I revise, the first thing I do is take the new things I added toward the end and build them back into the beginning, planting seeds of character motivation or better defining the curve of a story arc.

    I don't think I could ever read a book by random sections. Other than the dictionary or other reference books, it works pretty well with those.

  8. Alice Munro picks up a book and starts reading at a random point. I'm a totally non-linear thinker, but I don't think I've ever started a book at a random point!

    Lit Lab is going to do a podcast! Wow! Will keep an eye open for that - so exciting!

    Judy, South Africa

  9. I love reading books that are utterly immersive, that engross you entire, and when you are birthed back from that other world, you don't know what it meant or how it worked, but you remember that it was beautiful and deep and worthwhile.

  10. Rick: I revise out of order, too. I can only read books by random sections when I've read it before. I think to do otherwise would be a great way to make me go crazy. Haha.

    Judy: Yep! Podcasts! We're so excited! :)

    B. Nagel: You explain that really well, yes. That's the kind of fiction that stays on my shelves forever.

  11. I've got the end of my book all tied up. I know I'll have to make changes, or maybe even rewrite it, but it's like a finish line for me.

    I to get caught up in words. As long as I like the character I can put up with a lot of writing. Take Dean Koontz, he goes on and on and on, but you keep reading because you like the writing, the words. I write like that, I can't help it, I just love to got on and on. Then I go back and revise.

    That's my two cents worth. Take care.

  12. I wrote a short story in future tense once. That certainly changes your perspective. Basically, as best I can remember it, we have a guy sitting on a bench in a park about to do something life changing and the narrator tells us what's going to happen. The only bits that are in the present tense are the very brief opening and ending where we see him getting up and heading off to face what we all now know if coming.

  13. "The Storytelling is the Story" sums up my opinions about this. I think that what we produce--the finished works--are narratives that have particular forms and mannerisms and that the plot, the story, the premise and all that, are just parts of this narrative. The narrative is the thing--the performance if you will--that we experience when we read. Some narratives are linear, some are not (all but the simplest move around in time one way or another), some focus on plot or the external world, some focus on character or theme or the internal world, most change focus as they go along to different extents. "Story" is just part of a narrative. I think that we are drawn to certain types of narrative, whether we know it or not. I like discursive narratives, for example, that play with overall form (like the one you're talking about in this post). But I also like the simple and predictably-mannered form of the fairy tale.

    Anyway, I think that for whatever elements of the narrative that are emphasized, there will be other elements that are de-emphasized or outright ignored, because you can't be everywhere at once (unless you're James Joyce).

  14. Michelle, everything you've said makes sense. I think in straight lines when I write and when I read. I would love to absolutely read this book you're reading, though. To think in a nonlinear way, to step outside the box I didn't even realize surrounds me. Awesome words, Michelle.

    I can't wait for the podcast. :-)

  15. "For awhile, when I finish a book like this, I feel kind of cheated in straight linear fiction, which is almost like wading in a shallow pool rather than the deepest part of the ocean."

    You know I'm reading a book by the author to whom you refer. I have no idea what I'll read after this, or how I'll judge it. That will be interesting.

  16. Elizabeth: I get caught up in words, too, but on different levels for different books. I think my favorite level is when I'm unaware of anything else except for the rhythm and sounds inside my head. This is why I love poetry.

    Jim: Future tense, huh? That's quite unique! The story sounds fascinating.

    Scott: The narrative is the thing, yes. I want to write a post about this, eventually. I'm thinking of plays, in particular, how we keep retelling Shakespeare over and over and over on the stage. I'm aware of this more than most, probably, because of my husband constantly playing different Shakespearean characters. There's something there I want to talk about.

    I obviously like different forms. I think this is why I don't write in only one genre (something about the word genre just makes me shudder).

    As for what you say below about not knowing what you'll read next, I don't, either. I have a list I was moving down, but now I'm not sure what will come and how I'll feel about it. I hope I don't judge too harshly.

    Robyn: I have a feeling you'd love this book. :)

  17. I've heard that when you read and write, both parts of your brain are working. The right half is the creative part, imagery and theme and stuff like that, but the left half is mostly focusing on time, like x happens and y happens and in w they mention p.

    That's why nonlinear fiction, when done well, can actually make your brain more engaged. It's fun to connect loose ends like that. My favorite book in the whole world is like that, and the way it ties up satisfied every part of my brain.

  18. McKenzie: Oh, that's interesting! I don't think I would have thought about it in those terms before - using both sides of the brain. An actual, physical thing that's happening when you read nonlinear fiction. I'd like to know your favorite book. :)

  19. Why are you teasing us? Who is the author, what is the book? Is it already published or is it someone's manuscript? (I can see why you wouldn't name it if it's someone's manuscript, but otherwise, I would like to know the book.)

    The Unfinished Song: Initiate Amazon US, Amazon UK

  20. Aww, Tara, sorry! Just go look at my Goodreads shelf and you'll see what I'm reading. I just didn't want the title to overtake the point of my post, that's all. It's a classic. :)

  21. Hi Michelle - thanks for coming over to my blog and the post I did on Judy's prize .. it was fun & now I have Literary Lab's Anthology .. even better and that be can read any which way!

    I read magazines backwards .. I've never tried a book - perhaps I should do that if I struggle .. actually I suppose I have plunged into a book when necessity has given me time - eg staying over, or at a hospital .. no time to read the whole, but time to have a good go ..

    I'd love to know McKenzie's book too - if she'd be so kind as to let us know? ..

    Cheers - all the best with all your projects .. and I too must keep an eye on your podcasts .. Hilary

  22. What a great post and an interesting idea. I've considered writing non-linear but am a little intimidated by it. This makes me think I might have to return to that :)

    Thanks for your thoughts.


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